Writing for the Titanic Band



Matthew Guerrieri

All right. Let’s review, shall we?

The government is bankrupt: while tax revenues are drying up, the country is going into hock to pay for wars in distant lands, fought by a non-drafted, subcontracted army. Meanwhile, industry and capital have fled to foreign shores, forcing an uncomfortable reliance on imports for basic necessities. An influx of immigration is purportedly diluting the national character. Religion has pushed its way to the fore of public life, but it is a religion of shallow piety, peddling easy answers of personal salvation, rather than the hard truths of social responsibility. The culture? Disposable.

Yeah, it must have been lousy to be in Rome in 400 A.D. Or Spain in 1650. Or France in 1770. Or Istanbul in 1850. Or Britain in 1910. And a lot of those places only had some of these symptoms. But we’re not going to decline and fall, are we? It’s different this time, right? Just like the Internet economy! Right? Right?

OK, maybe not. Civilization as we know it may be in its final act. And no doubt there will be a couple more nasty surprises before the curtain’s rung down. (What’s Farsi for “Gulf of Tonkin,” anyway?) But that’s no reason to walk around under a cloud. Put that sackcloth and those ashes back in the basement next to the Christmas decorations—you, my composer friend, are uniquely positioned to profit from the decay of empire. Because, when the pillars of society are crumbling, what do the people want? They want to dance the night away.

The acquisition of knowledge seldom engages the curiosity of the nobles, who abhor the fatigue and disdain the advantages of study….The libraries which they have inherited from their fathers are secluded, like dreary sepulchers, from the light of day. But the costly instruments of the theatre, flutes, and enormous lyres, and hydraulic organs, are constructed for their use; and the harmony of vocal and instrumental music is incessantly repeated in the palaces of Rome. In those palaces sound is preferred to sense….

That’s the Roman historian Ammianus (as quoted by Edward Gibbon), taking stock just before Alaric and his hordes came in and trashed the place. Barbarians at the gate? Forget writers, historians, philosophers, and a host of other useful types—music is in the air! But not just any music. (I see the avant-garde types rubbing their hands together with glee. They prefer sound to sense? Sweet! Not so fast, willful obscurantists: style counts on this toboggan ride.) If you’re wondering what to compose while the present civilization rolls off the table of history like an errant malted milk ball, wonder no more.

Those were the days.

Nostalgia will be all the rage, so if you’re well-versed in cribbing the golden oldies, growth opportunities abound. That is, if your chosen plagiarism target represents the height of beauty and order, as determined by the Brahmins. Forget angst: nice and tonal is the way to go—think neo-classicism, except don’t make the rhythm so weird this time. All that extended tonality and atonality, even the old stuff, is nothing but an aural frown, and you’re never fully armored against the obvious fact of your own obsolescence without a smile.

After all, culture is what drives society, isn’t it? If we can just have the kind of music they had back in the day, when everybody knew their place and was happy, that’ll fix what’s ailing us. And if you think that art only reflects the society it’s created in, and that society has to change, well, you’re just an intellectual with too much time on your hands. You’re a nag, that’s what you are.

Intellectuals we may define without undue worry over preciseness as the writers, artists, musicians, actors, teachers, and preachers.

Quantitatively, we may say that in a society markedly unstable there seem to be absolutely more intellectuals, at any rate comparatively more intellectuals, bitterly attacking existing institutions and desirous of a considerable alteration in society, business, and government. Purely metaphorically, we may compare intellectuals of this sort to the white corpuscles, guardians of the bloodstream; but there can be an excess of white corpuscles, and when this happens you have a diseased condition. (Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution)

Hear that, Poindexter? Intellectuals are a disease. Pretty music is the cure!

The name of the bar is Heaven.

God is in the details—and the courts and the government and the television listings. And all that ethereal choir music isn’t going to write itself. So polish off those four-part cadences and two-part keyboard accompaniments. Just make sure to keep the earthly things strangely dim; if you let your focus slip from the afterlife, your audience might begin to feel uncomfortably culpable. Also, now would be a good time to cultivate any mystical bent you might have. Dead languages set to long, slow triads, etc. Anything that makes the listener think more of the next world than of this one.

Get it in while you can, though—after the fall, religion is going to get a lot more ascetic and mundane. It was all that fancy frippery and those worldly trappings that caused God to abandon us! Expect your music to be burned in an orgy of public repentance.

Vacation: Have to get away!

It’s time for some exoticism. Have a forgotten stack of vaguely gamelan-esque scores? A hard drive’s worth of fake ragas? A trunk full of janissary music? Dust it off! Nothing takes the sting out of living in a dying society like pretending you’re somewhere else altogether. And if that faraway land seems simpler, happier, and more clothing-optional than ours, all the better. (Extra points for using the term “noble savage” in your program notes.)

One for my baby, and one more for the road.

You’re thinking about all the things that will be lost in the chaos. You’re remembering the good times, and you get a little wistful. A little elegiac. A little Elgar-ish. And you’re assuming that no one wants to be depressed by your noble dirges and brave goodbyes. You’re wrong!

There is undeniable melancholy and reflectiveness in Elgar’s work, which have led later commentators to see it as expressing dissatisfaction with imperialism or the prediction of its end. Once again this is anachronistic. Melancholy was an integral part of the imperial religion, the necessary melancholy that the mission calls for such sacrifice and so many casualties. (Jeffrey Richards, Imperialism and Music: Britain 1873-1953)

Wipe that tear back into the corner of your eye—and cushion the cosmic blow with a soft mattress of flat keys and plagal relationships. A manly empire is man enough to cry.

It’s the next-phase, new-wave dance craze, anyways.

Not sure if your music fits into any of these categories? Invent your own. With the end of an historical chapter comes decadence. Anything goes—as long as it’s got sexy packaging.

The forms of art as life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces…. The upshot is a floating hostility to things as they are. It inspires the repeated use of the dismissive prefixes anti- and post- (anti-art, post-modernism) and the promise to reinvent this or that institution. The hope is that getting rid of what is will by itself generate the new life. (Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence)

With all the confusion surrounding them, your audiences are going to want the courage of their convictions, even if they’re not sure what those are. So give them something old, and call it something new. True, they’re not going to know what you mean when you tell them your music is anti-schematic post-surrealism. But they’ll be able to distinguish it from anti-linear post-aleatoricism, which is at least the façade of an opinion. And façades are all we’ve got going for us at this point.

Fight the power.

I see I still haven’t convinced some of you. Our musical vocabulary should reflect the tension and violence of contemporary existence, you say. People need to hear the hard truths of our actions and their consequences, you say. My advice to you: don’t quit your day job.

It’s too bad this isn’t a repressive regime; that sort of thing could garner quite an underground following, and… what’s that? Oh, you think this is a repressive regime. There’s just no talking to you, is there? At least do your heirs a favor: change your name to something that sounds smashing when followed by the phrase “prophet without honor.”

Finally: you may hear a lot of talk about “selling out.” Do it, by all means. This culture is only going to get louder, sillier, and more meretricious as things fall apart. People need increasingly more outrageous diversions from impending disaster, and they’re willing to pay big money—a lot more than they’ll pay for subtle and intelligent ruminations on the folly of humanity. I know you’ve been taught a lot of nonsense about “artistic integrity” and “honesty” and “finding your own voice,” but now is not the time for that. Don’t let the parade pass you by! Remember, in China, they use the same word for “crisis” and “opportunity.” Wait—no, they don’t. Which reminds me: we all probably should start learning Chinese.

One more thing: before the lamps go out all over the empire, get copies of your scores to some Irish monks. They’ll know what to do.

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Don’t blame composer, conductor, pianist, and writer Matthew Guerrieri; he voted for somebody else.